ONE of the great things about being a teacher of English as a foreign language is the opportunity to work all over the world. But time spent at the school is only a tiny portion of the acclimatisation process.
So after a fortnight here in Riga, Latvia, here’s how I’m getting on with the avalanche of “new”: new job, new language, new city, with a few general tips for teachers in italics at the end of each section. Feel free to comment with any other ideas!
As lovely as Riga is, the chance to develop professionally as a Senior Teacher at International House (which has some 160 schools worldwide) was my main motivation for coming here.
My job combines teaching classes with a stepping stone into other duties like observations and teacher training, as essentially the no.3 in the teaching staff of nearly 40. The Director of Studies and Assistant have got the ball rolling straight away, and I’ll be doing some informal observations of colleagues’ classes next week (as well as being observed myself), and will be trained up as a TIT (Trainer In Training, obviously :-P) on some of the courses offered to staff, like the Young Learners qualification.
In class, kids, teens and adults have been fine so far. I’m relieved that basic teaching skills seem to work elsewhere, having only ever taught in Spain, although I’m sure particular challenges to Latvian learners will emerge as the weeks rumble on. Also, I was expecting the language barrier to be more of a problem. Even covering lower level pre-teens, they have been very good at describing the vocab they want (Q: “What’s the name of security in a prison. A: “Prison guard”), whereas in Spain I could drill them to use “How do you say…?” and fall back on translation from L1. However, some higher level students have had to get their mobiles out to use a translator sometimes, and I can then check the word in context.
- Trust your teaching skills. Although there’ll be peculiarities wherever you teach, the basics are still applicable: set up classroom rules and routines from the start, have a clear objective for the lesson and set up a lesson plan to achieve this, cater for students’ individual needs.
My good friend and part-time philosopher Josh once told me that “comparison is the enemy of joy”, and it’s advice worth remembering, as not many places will compare favourably to Albacete as far as comfort and lifestyle go. Nevertheless, I should remember that it also took me a few months to feel well settled there, and the day-to-day always offered challenges, before I look back at my five years in La Mancha through rose-tinted spectacles.
The school has been brilliant in offering accommodation and advice on life here, and I got other basics (for me) sorted the first day, locating a pool and a gym and buying a second-hand bike to get around on. Like Albacete (comparison…), it’s pretty flat and a manageable size for a city, so nothing’s out of reach on two wheels. I’ve been looking for a triathlon or running club to train with, although I’ve had no success so far, as Club Triatlón Albacete became a family for me while I was living there, and I’d really like to get to know more local people to learn about life and culture here.
I’m also lucky to have a number of really friendly colleagues who are in the same boat of moving here to work without any previous ties to the city, so we’ve been spending time together outside of work, and going through the necessities like the immigration procedure together.
- Visit beforehand if you can. Coming to Riga for four days in June allowed me to locate the basics before I came, and reduced the nerves that come with moving to an unknown place.
- Take your time to find your feet. Even if you can visit before, don’t expect everything to go smoothly from day 1! Patience!
- Try to continue hobbies you had before moving. There’ll be so much of the “new” to contend with, a little of something familiar goes a long way! It´s also a great way to meet like-minded locals!
Both Russian and Latvian are widely used here , although Latvian is the only official language. Nevertheless, the vast majority of staff and students at IH Riga speak Russian as their first language, as do others I´ve had direct contact with so far, such as gym instructors. I bought myself a teach-yourself Russian book a few months ago, and learnt some basics like the alphabet and some greetings while still in Spain. I’ve been trying to practise a few broken sentences here and there with staff, and the very kind concierge Edvard has been a great help in a sort of language exchange, making sure I don’t leave for home at the end of the evening’s classes without a few new phrases to go over.
Outside of work, I’ve been a little wary on the cultural implications of using Russian. Might some Latvian-speakers be offended, as some Catalans react when you speak Spanish in Catalunya? In any case, when people realise I’m an English-speaker, most have started in decent English straight away, so I’ll need to be more determined if I’m to practice out of work.
- Make an effort with the local language. Working abroad is also a great opportunity to add another string to your bow and develop new language skills, so don´t waste it!
A work in progress here in Riga (there’s never actually a finish line, is there?). I’ll be updating the blog regularly this year with posts aimed for fellow teachers, as well as learners of English.
Have a good term!